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Congenital anomalies of the kidney and urinary tract (CAKUT) affect 1/500 live births. CAKUT lead to end stage renal failure in children, and are associated with high morbidity rates. Understanding the mechanisms of kidney development, and that of other associated urogenital tissues, is crucial to the prevention and treatment of CAKUT. The kidney arises from self-renewing mesenchymal renal stem cells that produce nephrons, which are the principal functional units of the organ. To date, the genetic and cellular mechanisms that control nephrogenesis have remained poorly understood. In recent years, developmental studies using amphibians and zebrafish have revealed that their simple embryonic kidney, known as the pronephros, is a useful paradigm for comparative studies of nephron ontogeny. Here, we discuss the new found roles for Iroquois transcription factors in pronephric nephron patterning, and explore the relevance of these findings for kidney development in humans.